Me playing with one of my baby dolls.
I am thinking a lot recently about personality. How do I work out what is autism and what is simply me, and how has my personality changed over time.
The title of this piece is deliberately misleading. I think that most people are too complex to be be either completely extroverted or introverted, as things are seldom Either/Or in life. However, that said, it seems self-evidently apparent that people deal with the world in different ways, with some people preferring peace, reflection and the intellect, and others gravitating more towards action, people and adventure. These preferences can, of course, change in the same person over time, as our inborn temperament is sculpted by external events to create our personality over the course of our childhood and adolescence.
Autism is a neurological difference that affects the whole of one’s life, and so it is not surprising that it would also generate experiences that mold personality. My general hunch is that more autistics become introverted than in the general population because of having temperaments that veer towards being highly strung and reactive. It is rare for an autistic to be described as having a calm temperament!. Even if we do not begin life as introverts, it is hard for us to remain extroverted when the world is so overwhelming and people so difficult to understand. These experiences may well drive a significant number of us into the recesses of our own minds – a survival mechanism I will call Introverted Withdrawal.
So how has my personality changed over time?
I did not begin life quietly. On arrival, I screamed so loudly that the midwife said I certainly had nothing wrong with my lungs!. I was the loudest baby on the ward. However, I did not cry continually. Most of the time I was content, and I turned into a very smiley, giggly baby. I loved to constantly jiggle my legs, and as soon as I could crawl I would not sit still. As a toddler I would often walk off without a care in the world. My favourite game was to run around other children, giggling. But when I was restrained in my pushchair against my will, I would scream and scream, incredibly loudly.
My mother said my babyhood was so easy that it encouraged her to have another child. I was not at all anxious, and was very energetic and cheerful. This interests me because I had always assumed I was anxious from birth, but this was not the case. So, I wonder, what made me change from a carefree toddler to a child with every fear under the sun?
I was happy to go to nursery school, and had no separation anxiety at all. The only time I remember being anxious at nursery school was during the Easter Parade. The class of 3 year old’s had to walk past a group of parents, wearing fancy dress. I became very shy and could not walk out of the classroom, so a teacher had to take my hand and walk me past the onlookers.
At nursery school I had one friend in the year below me. We enjoyed hiding under chairs every time a teacher walked past. I called this girl my best friend, but we stopped being friends at primary school as we were in different year groups.
On my first day at primary school I fell over en route to school. On arrival at school, I hid behind my dad’s legs to avoid the teacher’s gaze. I could not interact with my classmates, so the teachers found 2 older girls to play with me. We played Dungeons every break time, but they eventually lost interest, and I was all alone at break times.
But I tried to interact, I just could not do so successfully. I poked my tongue out at other kids, was overly silly, and did not realise or care that my annoying behaviour meant that the others did not want to play with me.
It was easier to try and make friends on holiday. At the caravan site in Devon and Stratford Upon Avon I visited every year throughout my childhood, I approached kids on the swings and asked them to be my friend. The kids were isolated, were not in established groups, and they were just glad for someone to play with. I even chatted to kids on the train, and made very brief friendships. That the friendship might only last half an hour did not bother me. I just enjoyed collecting friends on holiday.
I started to develop anxiety from the age of 4. The anxiety stemmed from a combination of taking things literally and feeling overwhelmed. Thankfully, I can’t remember this experience much at all, but my mum often regaled the story of when I became terrified of the school fire alarm and refused to go to school by screaming and not setting foot in the classroom. The teachers had no idea what precipitated this, as up to then I had enjoyed going to school. But eventually I explained that I thought the alarm meant the school was actually on fire and everyone would die!. I was fine once it was explained that it was only a practice – somehow I had not understood the initial instructions.
I was frightened of sudden bangs such as fireworks and balloons, and developed into a very cautious child whose phobias increased with age and experience.
However, socially I remained mostly anxiety free. As a child I had no concept of trying to fit in. I was completely myself without effort. I never thought about whether others were judging me – the thought did not enter my mind. I was never unhappy. In fact, as a child, as long as I wasn’t ill, I was always happy and energetic. It did not bother me that I had no friends in my peer group at school. I did not even have an inkling that I might be different until age 10. Because I was unabashedly myself, I often behaved a bit inappropriately around the other kids. For example, I once wet myself in class because I thought it was funny , and of course the kids laughed. I had no concept of embarrassment, and so it did not bother me that I had a huge damp patch on my skirt and must have stank of urine. In year 6 I made silly faces and disrupted story time, which meant I often got sent outside. On another occasion, I kept on playing my recorder when all the other kids wanted me to be quiet, but their increasing annoyance just made me laugh. I did not have an off switch, and would carry on doing something over and over if it amused me or satisfied a desire. Of course, I was afraid of getting told off, and if a teacher was known to be strict I was more likely to behave, and then I would look very quiet and shy. It was almost like there were two sides to my personality!
I finally made my first peer group friend in the last few years of primary. We were friends on and off, because I could only have one friend and could not share friends. As I had no social anxiety at all, this friendship was authentic and totally enjoyable. I talked without consciousness or masking. We played and laughed, and I have fond memories of her coming round to my house with her younger brother who was my brother’s friend. The deal was, that when she came to my house, I could play with her alone at school, but when she went round to her other friend’s house, she stopped playing with me. Our friendship was therefore very up and down. When we were not friends, I played with a girl in my brother’s year, who was later also diagnosed as autistic, or I would amuse myself by running incredibly fast through the playground, with my arms outstretched, feeling the wind against my arms. I played noisily, sometimes screaming, hardly the stereotype of a reserved introvert. However, at other times, in class, I would stare out the window daydreaming, or would go excessively quiet. Teachers said I lacked confidence and was emotionally immature, and confidence raising activities were recommended. It did not help that I was not good at team sports because of poor spatial awareness, and my reaction speed was very slow. I had to be taken out of class for coordination exercises from the age of 9, and this made me feel singled out, although I did not yet question why I was different or even really saw myself as different. I was just a happy child.
I became conscious of my difference when I started secondary school. It was at this age that I first started to actively mold my personality. I realised that if I smiled, nodded, kept in line, and was not inappropriate, I might stand a greater chance of being liked. I soon came to be seen as quiet and shy. I lost friends for the following reasons: too clingy (I followed one girl everywhere), not speaking enough (if I was not being inappropriate and silly, I did not know what to say – and unlike with my primary school friend, talking was now about small talk and being serious and mature), and I could not enter groups.
I started secondary school eager to make friends. I’m not sure that I was extroverted, but I was certainly not introverted either. However, after experiencing rejection after rejection, I lost faith in making friends and decided that it was not worth the hassle. I was still happy and my difference had not yet affected the way I saw myself. I was not yet completely aware, and I was content to follow my own special interests. I thought that things would just improve of their own accord, over time.
My OCD escalated as a teenager, but I don’t think I was aware of its significance. It did not make me unhappy, but it made my parents very concerned. In fact, it took me years to even realise I was struggling with anxiety. To me, I was living a normal life, and I just got on with things. Peer pressure and having friends was not in my list of priorities. I was happy to play games of tag as a child, but at secondary no one wanted to play running games, and the new expectation to make small talk was lost on me. I was happy just to go home on my own and do my own thing.
One thing I did find out as a teen is that I don’t have stage fright. This surprised me at the time because I had never been given a major part in a school play, and when I was on stage at primary in the background to school productions, I tended to feel overwhelmed. However, I had been a member of the primary school choir, and I loved to sing as a child. As a teen, I joined a Friday afternoon dance group because of my Kate Winslet interest. I even took part in an amateur dramatics production of Much Ado About Nothing, all because Kate Winslet’s sister had appeared in the previous year’s play. I performed as an Extra in front of hundreds of people, and was not remotely scared. The difficulty with imagining different scenarios, tendency toward logic, and not caring too much about making an impression (at least at this age), which are probably connected to my autism, actually helped me go on stage without fear.
In my 20s, I rekindled a ”get up and go” side to my personality that had become submerged under worsening OCD. After my diagnosis and once I had received some help with my OCD, I initiated several volunteering roles. It helped that all my needs were looked after by my parents, so I did not need to worry about cooking or looking after myself. I was not as aware as I am now of what made me stressed, and I decided that I wanted to overcome my fears and challenge myself. However, over time I lost interest, and realised that I was masking who I really was, which was making me stressed and irritable. I think it was this realisation that led to my Introverted Withdrawal . Quite simply, I did not have the energy anymore to fake sociability when it made me feel very tense, and was not at all natural. My awareness developed in my late teens, and with increasing awareness, it became more and more stressful to be around people. Lately, and particularly now I live semi independently, I have decided to pull down the hatches and retire from the world, just in order to protect my limited store of energy. I am no longer motivated to meet people if the price of that interaction is a loss of my true self. This is the price of awareness: increased introversion. There is a cyclical quality to this, as the introversion encourages more awareness, and the awareness encourages the introversion. I am spending more and more time reading, and only rarely go out into the world.
I have always been very focused on my interests. My mum used to say that I will only work hard if I am interested, and this is very true. I often messed around as a kid because I was asked to do things that bored me. But when I was motivated, I surprised people with my output. An example of this is when I studied the human body in year 6. For once I knuckled down and listened to the teacher because I was absolutely fascinated by the body and all the processes. I took voluminous notes; everything the teacher said was noted down. I went from no focus to complete focus, and this still happens today. If the interest is there, I will put effort in, if I am not interested, all I experience is frustration. At least as an adult I can follow my interests without so much interruption, and this might be encouraging the introverted side of my personality.